06/02/2011 09:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Unimaginable Environmental Crises (Don't Mess With Mother Nature)

Although we are barely halfway through 2011, this year has delivered a harrowing display of natural disasters. From tsunamis to tornadoes, from earthquakes to erupting volcanoes, the fury of nature's forces has left millions in a continuing state of shock and awe.

And to think that hurricane season hasn't even started!

No matter how carefully mankind embarks on disaster planning (with redundancies upon redundancies), Mother Nature demonstrates a phenomenal talent for trashing the best laid plans of scientists and engineers. Two new dramatic ventures (one onstage and one onscreen) introduce audiences to chilling possibilities they have probably never considered.

Berkeley's Shotgun Players continue to celebrate their 20th anniversary season with the world premiere of the second of their five commissioned plays. Elizabeth Hunter Spreen's daring Care of Trees is hardly your standard heterosexual romance. True: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, and boy gets to marry girl. But then girl turns into a tree and uses her roots to drag boy underground so that she can, once more, lie naked beside him and hold him in her arms.

Care of Trees is what I call a "fearless" play in that the script takes audiences to unimaginable places in their minds while the set designer (the talented Nina Ball) must provide some kind of landscape/mindscape that will support such a challenging emotional journey. It also requires a producer, like Patrick Dooley, who's got guts.

Make no mistake about it: the two characters at the heart of Care of Trees are by no means delicate flowers:

  • Georgia Swift (Liz Sklar) is a talented architect whose father is a notorious real estate developer with a long history of damaging the environment.
  • Travis DeKalb (Patrick Russell) is an aggressive young attorney working for a group of environmental activists.

Georgia (Liz Sklar) and Travis (Patrick Russell)
Photo by: Pak Han

A relationship that could easily have been sabotaged by hate at first sight is, instead, sparked by unfettered lust and overwhelming desire. Unfortunately, marriage doesn't turn out to be quite what this young couple expected. In her program notes, director Susannah Martin writes:

"With its collage-like structure, where time and space are fluid, several issues are touched upon as we swirl through the memories of one couple: the environment and our responsibility to it; illness and its effect on a relationship; language and its limitations in articulating what we feel (especially when our experience becomes so big that it is beyond words); our very contemporary obsessions with cataloguing and generating artifacts (both real and virtual) of our relationships, and what happens to those memories as time passes and things change... In the midst of all of those themes, ultimately, this play asks: What happens when your partner embarks on a journey where you can't follow? And concurrently, what happens when life forces you to choose a path that may mean the loss of your relationship? Life is about change. It's about death. It's about re-birth. This beautiful play demonstrates that process on both the most intimate and the most magical scale."

Poster art for Care of Trees

Ms. Martin has done a stunning job of pulling two extraordinary performances from her actors. Combining naturalism with magical realism isn't the easiest thing to pull off onstage. Care of Trees benefits immensely from the use of balletic movement in key moments of lyricism and emotionality.

Sklar and Russell are so physically and emotionally committed to their roles that, as the play progresses, one doesn't think of Georgia's transition into a tree as a metaphor but as shockingly real. Shotgun's handsome multimedia production grabs its audience by the throat and take them on one helluva challenging ride. This is a very exciting and memorable new work.

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Young lovers might hope that their love will last forever, but filmmaker Michael Madsen is more concerned with what happens to radioactive waste that is expected to remain lethally dangerous for 100,000 years. In light of the tragic events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan earlier this year, the relevance of his exquisitely filmed and bone-chilling documentary, Into Eternity, becomes increasingly urgent.

Filmmaker Michael Madsen

Madsen's film boasts a wonderful original musical score by Karsten Fundal and some magnificent cinematography by Heikki Färm. As Madsen takes viewers deep inside Finland's massive Onkalo project (where nuclear waste will hopefully remain safely stored and under seal for a thousand centuries), one can't help but wonder if mankind's biggest weakness is its innate sense of hubris.

Inside the nuclear storage facility at Onkalo.

In his director's note, Madsen states that:

"I am interested in the areas of documentary filmmaking where additional reality is created. By this, I mean that I do not think reality constitutes a fixed entity which accordingly can be documented -- revealed -- in this or that respect. Instead, I suspect reality to be dependent on and susceptible to the nature of its interpretation. I am, in other words, interested in the potentials and requirements of how reality can be -- and is -- interpreted.

The Onkalo project of creating the world's first final nuclear waste facility capable of lasting at least 100,000 years transgresses both in construction and on a philosophical level all previous human endeavors. It represents something new. And as such, I suspect it to be emblematic of our time -- and in a strange way out of time, a unique vantage point for any documentary."

While Madsen's film is beautiful to watch, the story it tells becomes extremely ominous when one realizes that the Onkalo project only deals with Finland's nuclear waste (there's a lot more radioactive material out there that is not being treated with as much concern for the environment). Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape.